In the wake of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 19-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons, it’s hard to believe that, only a few short weeks ago, the 2022 season seemed to be heading nowhere. This conundrum spurred plenty of discussion about what might be the best possible scenario for a team which clearly seemed to be missing too many bricks from its foundation. Back then, the consensus held that an optimal result would be for the Black-and-gold simply to determine its permanent quarterback and start playing more consistent football by season’s end.
With five games remaining in what was widely expected to strictly be a season of transition, not only does that best-case scenario appear plausible but, given the knee injury to Ravens’ QB Lamar Jackson on Sunday, at least one of these remaining games might be less challenging than expected. Considering the Steelers’ up-and-down play while posting their 5-7 record, however, it’s equally possible to imagine them stumbling on some of those apparently winnable games. Nonetheless, the “glass-half-full” segment of Steelers Nation is excited to daydream about a 7-game winning streak to wind up this season which would push the team all the way to 10-7.
After what we witnessed in Atlanta and Indianapolis, this incredible scenario would be possible only if the Steelers offense continues to carry the team through its stretch run. During Pittsburgh’s modest, 2-game winning streak, the ability of the offense to possess the ball and add points at crucial junctures has spelled the difference between victory and defeat. On the other hand, the Steelers’ defense has been opening the door for opponents to stage second-half comebacks.
The high hopes accompanying T.J. Watt’s return from injury have been scaled back during the past few weeks. Watt entered the Atlanta game clearly not at 100% and, by the game’s final whistle, his condition looked even worse. He was practically invisible throughout the Atlanta game, even when he was single-blocked. There’s a real possibility Watt might be finished for the season unless he’s able to sit out another week or two. And given his obvious decline in performance on the field, it’s reasonable to question the decision to bring Watt back this season.
Without the T.J. that Steelers fans know and love, Pittsburgh’s defense is severely compromised and lacking in the ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. As for the run defense, it has been shredded this season by several opponents.
But considering these defensive woes only makes the Steelers’ good-news offense shine all the brighter. Kenny Pickett continued his progress in Atlanta in a performance which statistically was similar to the win in Indianapolis. For the most part, Pickett was accurate in targeting his receivers despite a couple of drops which might have added more points to the scoreboard. Completing 16 of 28 passes for 197 yards including one 17-yard TD pass to Connor Heyward, Pickett once again was flawless in protecting the football (no interceptions or fumbles). Against the notion that Kenny might fancy himself as a running quarterback, he tucked and ran the ball only twice in Atlanta for a total of 14 yards.
Perhaps most notably, when Pickett missed throws, he did so in a way that ran very low risk of interceptions. This was especially evident on passes when his receivers were closely guarded. It seems obvious that Pickett is a quarterback who doesn’t like to gamble by throwing into coverage. He typically opts for sailing the ball over the receiver’s head or short-hopping it when a particular pattern is tightly defended. For a rookie QB, these are uncommon-but-positive traits.
Running the ball for a total of 154 yards and a 4.2-yard average per carry, the Steelers’ infantry logged another impressive performance. Once again, the OL played a commendable game, not only in run-blocking but also in pass protection. Najee Harris played like a man possessed, breaking tackles and pushing defenders backwards while rushing for 86 yards and a 5.1 yards-per-carry average. Benny Snell added 24 yards on six carries, while Steven Sims had three carries for 19 yards.
Overall, the Steelers’ offense was well balanced, rushing for 11 first downs (the same number as last week vs. Indy) while passing for 10 first downs. They converted 6 of 12 third-down situations and averaged 5.4 yards per offensive play for the entire game.
The Steelers receivers were the source of some controversy, plus a huge, splash play in the form of Pat Freiermuth’s muscular 57-yard catch and run. The controversy surrounded rookie receiver/phenom George Pickens who played only sparingly even though he obviously was not injured. But Freiermuth’s three catches for 76 yards and Diontae Johnson’s five catches for 60 yards compensated somewhat for the strange disappearance of Mr. Pickens.
Looking ahead on the Steelers’ schedule, we find a trio of games that, at least on paper, appear to be winnable matchups. Next Sunday, the Black-and-gold play the Baltimore Ravens in Pittsburgh and perhaps without Lamar Jackson in the lineup. On December 18, the Steelers go on the road to face the currently 4-8 Carolina Panthers. Then on Christmas Eve, the Steelers host the currently 5-7 Las Vegas Raiders at Acrisure Stadium. In their final two games in January, the Steelers will face the Ravens on the road (likely with Lamar Jackson back) and the Cleveland Browns with their infamous, $230 million QB.
Thus, depending on the severity of Jackson’s knee injury, there’s a chance the Steelers will have similar-caliber competition in the majority of their final five games as the teams they’ve faced during the past two weeks. Assuming that Pickett’s development remains on track and the offense continues to improve its production, the Steelers might not run the table but it’s certainly not a huge stretch to see Pittsburgh reaching 9-8 or 8-9 by season’s end. A key element in this scenario will be Matthew Wright’s clutch placekicking which has spelled the difference in the past two wins.
The very idea that the Black-and-gold might be in the running for a Wild Card berth seemed absurd not long ago, but currently it falls within the realm of possibility, however slim. Regardless of whether the Steelers seriously challenge for a playoff berth, their current 5-7 mark and the mostly friendly schedule ahead make it likely they will meet or surpass the most optimistic forecasts of many fans and pundits. Equally important, their recent, winning efforts have substantially boosted the level of fan interest in the games remaining, and no longer strictly in terms of determining their position in the 2023 NFL Draft.